I never understood the claim that objectivity in narrative can’t be achieved. It seemed so simple—just remove all the subjectivity. I know now that that’s easier said than done, but it definitely can be done. I’m writing a novel, two sections of which are written in this objective style that I’m calling the zeroth person, the opening scene of which is below.
Typically when people talk about narrative objectivity they’re talking about journalism, journalistic objectivity. And some people lament that more journalists can’t be more objective, and others shrug it off and embrace the subjectivity. But journalism is just one form of narrative, differing from fiction primarily in that its subjects and the things they do are factual. Objectivity should be easier to achieve in journalism than in fiction, which so often relies on the feelings and inner life of its subjects or narrator to convey its effects.
Stories are a form of information revelation—tension, dramatic irony, and the like, is created by the manner and order in which these revelations occur. In a sense, the narrator acts as the mediator between the author and the reader. The zeroth person removes the middleman.
The place of the narrator in the story determines the person of the story.
Stories in the first person are told by a character within that story. The character does things and relates these and other things to the reader.
In the second person, you are made a character of the story. You are told what you feel and think and do.
There are a few forms of third person. Third person subjective follows one character, relates what they do and might relate their thoughts and feelings. It might also relate the thoughts and feelings of the narrator, independent of the character the story follows. This person differs from the first person primarily in that the narrator is not (typically) the character the story follows, but the narrator can reveal information that is subjective to the character. In both these persons, we’re granted access to a character’s inner life. In third person objective, the only interiority we’re granted access to is the narrator’s. Third person omniscient grants us access to everyone’s, including the narrator’s.
In all these forms the narrator is a character—who might be present in the story, but not necessarily—relating the story to the reader.
The zeroth person is similar to third person objective but it removes the character of the narrator. The narrator is granted no subjectivity—the only interiority permitted is that which the characters themselves reveal.
This presents some fun and interesting challenges. The author and the narrator are identical, but the author remains outside the story and can’t inject their subjectivity. You can’t describe a dog as ugly, or a perfume as intoxicating. You can’t describe light as bright. You can’t relate sensations or intentions—you can only reveal facts. You can’t say a character looked at something, or turned around to face something—who in that world can say why she turned, or whether she’s looking at the wall or at a particular brick in the wall or at a ladybug scuttling across a brick? Only she can. Instead, you can say “She turned and faced the wall. A ladybug scuttled across the crags and ripples in one of the gaps that grid its surface.”
But this also leads to fun discoveries. Like I discovered that the noun while is almost meaningless—any amount of time at all can be described as a while. Certain common turns of phrase are verboten and revealed as weird frames for lies—you can’t write “they arrived home only to discover that someone had broken in” or “I had somebody dump a bucket of milk on me today”. These turns of phrase are a form of slang, and the literal phrases delve into character intent, which can’t be assumed.
This puts the author in the position of revealing the nature of the fiction’s world, or things as they are there, to the reader directly, rather than mediating that world to the reader through another character. And, as a result, the author can’t lie—every sentence must be true—because nature is incapable of lying. Our misuse of language creates untruth.
Of course there is still manipulation of information (there could be no story without some form of information manipulation—all creativity is information transformation) but it is authorial—choices in rhetoric, the juxtaposition of sounds, images, and concepts, selecting what information is revealed and when—rather than character-narrational.
Tension, dramatic irony, and the like, can still be created. Manipulation, omission, and selective revelation does not require the creation of untruth. Nor does it require a character-narrator.
I have certain feelings about it but I can’t really say whether the zeroth person is better or worse than the others. I’ve found the process of writing in it more revelatory than the others. And I can see some people arguing that it makes a story, by definition, less personable. But beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. And sometimes you don’t want so many feelings getting in the way of the facts. Some stories could benefit from this sort of removed mood.
“Do you recognize any of them, Father?”
On the other side of blackened glass, in the humid air outside, pass a mass of hands holding beads on strings, blankets, feathers, figurines.
“I’m trying not to.” The priest is reclining in the rear seat of the limousine, head turned toward the window between him and the people outside. “And the honorific really isn’t necessary right now. I’m just a man waiting for his daughter.”
The driver turns in her seat, faces him through the lowered partition. “In that case: I despise these God damn dump people. They’re an intrusion of the past, an embarrassing reminder of the history of failures and shame we are born into. Their very being is an impediment to our progress—enomomically, socially, psychologically—and a burden we inherited, which makes it worse. Twenty-seven years ago we rebelled against all the things that created their situation—and since then we’ve established a new order, revitalized our society—yet here they are. And look at them. They’re revolting. They are pleading meat. I understand that you’re here to minister to them and for that I’m grateful—I don’t mean to demean you or your work. I hope you know that. And I hope you appreciate the scale of your task.”
The priest clears his throat. “Perhaps pity is a response more appropriate than revulsion. We are all human beings. All things of a kind share a common nature—at our cores we are the same. Any differences we perceive must therefore be conditional, superficial, situational. So imagine yourself in their situation. You’re hungry. You’re tired. The day’s ending soon and you don’t yet know where you’ll sleep or if you’ll eat. And what will your children eat? What would you do? Are they not behaving reasonably, considering, or with some modicum of dignity, seizing this small initiative their situation allows?”
“But, Father, I have been in their situation. I lived in the dump fourteen years and those fourteen years I was animal. I ate rats still warm. I shat in doorways. But I didn’t suffer—I persevered. I survived. Every load the trucks dumped brought the promise of a transformed life. Every day was a cycle of hunt and hoard and hide and fight. There is no trust. No faith. No family. There is no thought of we or us—only of me and my. Humanity does not exist there because humans do not belong there. Humans that live there cannot afford humanity.”
“But you’re beyond that now. Your own history is a testament to how change in one’s external situation can induce and inspire change internally, to how a change of place can inspire a change in mind. So what would prevent your sense of empathy from seeing in them a kindred being, from recognizing a fellow human suffering, from pitying them their condition?”
“Would you pity a dog its grey sight? Would you pity a sand crab for sleeping in sand or a male mantis freshly mated and mutilated? We pity beings suffering situations heinous to their nature. But the nature of dump people is not our nature. It was never your nature. It is no longer my nature. Destiny seeded me there and destiny brought me out. And my nature preserved me through my stay and when I was brought out my nature was transmuted.”
“And how did destiny salvage you from the dump?”
“Through the agency of Don Salomon. He recognized the absence, the want of humanity in me and the quality of my nature, both what it was and what it could be, latent, suppressed, potential energy in need of conversion.” She points at the priest. “Just as he recognized the quality of your nature and of your church and its power to improve the quality of our country.” She rotates her wrist and unfolds her fist, palm opened to the ceiling. “And now we’re here.”
“And now you drive his limousines.”
“Now I am an extension of the agency of destiny as it acts through Don Salomon.”
He turns his head back toward the window. She smiles and does likewise.
“Anyway,” she says, “humans are animals and what we call humanity is not inherent to the human animal. Nature made us animals and humanity makes us human. Humanity must be taught to humans, inculcated to the ignorant by the wise, nurtured and matured, refined through time. Our techniques and traditions of mastery over the animal in us. Our capacities for introspection and invention, for observation, derivation, imagination, transformation, articulation—the ability to reason and create reason—the ability to invent reasons to reason. Our wisdom and our need for more. We extract data from this ocean of information, we refine and transform it and produce knowledge, wisdom, technology, art. But these,” she gestures with an open hand toward the window, “are humans by physiology alone. At least for now.” She grins. “I believe your church will inspire a humane spirit in these animals.”
“Well,” he pulls his sunglasses off his head, pushes them onto his face, and faces her, “this has been an entertaining confession.”
Her grin grows to expose her canine teeth.
A boy on the sidewalk holding blankets stops and separates from the group. He moves closer to the car. At the sidewalk’s edge he leans toward one of its rear windows. He raises a hand to his hair, a puff of curling frizz, and presses it to his scalp.
The priest looks back toward the driver, who’s looking toward the boy.
“You’re sure they can’t see in?” he says, quieter than before.
“From the outside,” she nods, “these windows are pure reflection.”
The boy leans closer. He exposes his teeth, browned and fractured. He rotates his face but maintains his gaze.
The priest puts a pointing finger to the glass. He spreads his palm there—if the window were down, he could lay it on the boy’s forehead. He then pounds the window with the butt of his fist. The boy startles, ducks, and throws a forearm before his face. Then he leans in, pounds back once, and runs away.
“What time is it?”
The driver turns her head toward the dashboard clock. “The rain should come any minute.”
For a while neither of them speak. The priest looks up toward the back seat’s sunroof and the water condensing from the air such to fall and spatter on it.
“What does she look like?” says the driver.
“She’s tall. She has a thin neck and a square jaw line. She might have dreadlocks. They might be red. She might be wearing green or brown or even blue pants, light and loose, and probably a matching blouse, and she’ll probably be carrying multiple bags, that floppy knitted kind the hippies use.”
“Is that her?” The driver points toward a bald woman wearing reflective aviators and carrying only a metal briefcase. Her white shirt is sleeveless and her white pants are stained red around the crotch.
“Oh God,” says the priest. He opens the door, steps out partly, calls “Talitha?”
Talitha pulls the glasses from her face and faces him. “Daddy?”
The priest steps out of the car and raises his hands as Talitha moves to him and when she’s within reach he swoops his arms down and under hers, which she raises and drapes behind his neck.
“I’m so happy you’ve come,” he says.
“You look healthy,” she says. “You look off duty.”
“You’re going to love it here. It’s warm and beautiful, there’s art and music and nature and everything. It’s a cultural renaissance in a tropical mountain paradise. A whole society working together on a colossal project of improvement.”
“I read the papers, dad,” she smiles. “And your letters, of course.”
He moves his hands to her shoulders and leans back and leans in to kiss her cheeks and leans back again. “What happened here?” he says, indicating the red.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she says. “On the way here I aborted my future.”
The driver exits, rounds the front of the car. Talitha separates from the priest and faces her.
“Good afternoon, madam. My name’s Charan, I’ll be your driver today. May I help you with your luggage?”
“Hi Charan, I’m Talitha.” They shake hands. “And it’s just the one. I packed light.”
“Lightly,” says her father. “You did not pack photons. And wait. What does that mean—what is this abortion bullshit?”
Charan holds open the car’s back door. “My lady.”
“Well clearly I couldn’t raise it here,” Talitha says to her father, and shrugs. And, to Charan, “I’d rather ride up front, if that’s okay.”
“It’s open,” says Charan, walking around the rear back up to the driver’s seat. “Are you ready, Father Marcion?” She and Talitha close the car’s front doors.
“Aborted your future,” says Marcion. “That’s an awful attitude to start your new life with.” He sits in the center-rear seat.
“You’re lucky,” says Charan, “you just missed the rain.”
“Yeah, I watched it from inside. Figured stained pants and a soaked shirt might be too much for my first day. Plus, I wanted to wait out that desperation parade.”
Charan and Marcion both look toward the rear view mirror. He shakes his head. She smiles.
“So how was your flight?” she says.
“Mostly good,” says Talitha. “We hit some turbulence. At one point it was so bad that people started praying in the aisle. Sitting and standing in a circle and holding hands. It was strange.”
“Did you join them?” Marcion moves closer to the limousine’s partition.
“Well thank God you’re safe,” says Charan. “Was anyone hurt?”
“Oh no,” says Talitha. “But I spilled Bloody Mary all over my lap. And it was impossible to get a napkin.”